It was August, 2008 around 1800 hours in Baghdad, Iraq. I was sitting on the concrete in the hot sun waiting for my number to be called to take a flight from BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. After that, I would make a long journey from Kuwait to the United States and eventually back home to New Jersey. I could not contain my excitement. It had been over a year since I had been back home. I was getting tired of the dust and sand, the sound of mortars, and trying to sleep to the sound of small arms fire in Sadr City. I was tired of the death and destruction. I just wanted to drink a beer and tell my story to my friends. Come home and show my family that I was a man. Show them I was safe, and tell them my new philosophy of life I was forced to learn here.
The sun was shining so bright, even with my sun glasses on. The heat was amplified due to being positioned along the flight line. The roar of C130s landing and taking off was somehow relieving. I was on the major U.S. installation in Iraq, although I was right in the middle of Baghdad, I felt much safer than the day before on Rustamiyah. I felt much safer than the convoy I took through Sadr City to get here. My adrenalin was finally decreasing. I was falling asleep fast, uncontrollable. I tried to keep myself awake since I had to listen for the flight number I was assigned so I could get on a C130 to Kuwait. I look around me. All around were Soldiers, Airmen, and Sailors. There were British Soldiers, Australian Soldiers, and many contractors and mercenaries. I felt alone, I tried to find other Military Police to sit with.
“Hey Soldier, you want some company?”
I looked up. It was a Staff Sergeant. Since I was a Private First Class I stood up at Parade Rest and addressed him.
“At ease PFC, we’re all just trying to get the fuck home, what unit are you with?”
“95th MP, 18th MP Sergeant.”
“You’re with those cock suckers, the MPs? Where’s your MP patch?”
“I don't got one, I'm a Paralegal.”
“Ha-ha so you don't do shit huh, fucking pencil pusher...I'm just giving you shit man. So where you guys at?”
“We’re at Rustamiyah, near Falcon and Shield.”
“Do you mean you’re from ROCKETmiyah? Fuck...I'm sorry man, you got my respect.”
The Staff Sergeant was an Infantry NCO from North in Tikirt. He had gotten injured in a raid so he was, for the time, positioned as his Company's operations NCO. Desk job like mine you could say. Except in this war, you fought with your gun at your desk. At times it was safer to go out on mission than to stay put. SSG and I sat for a while telling each other stories that we've been through since boots on the ground. Then we switched to where we were going on R and R. He was going to Arizona to see his wife and possibly his old girlfriend. I told him I was going to New Jersey and Massachusetts to see my family and friends that I hadn't seen since I left for the Army a year and half before.
It was a long night; we thought we wouldn't get on the plane. They called our number a few times and told us there wasn’t enough room or the flight was changed. We got some food at the Burger King on base; the first I had since April. For him it was much longer. SSG and I were becoming fast friends. Although we were separated by rank and experience, we had a common goal which was rest and to get home.
Finally, in the early morning our number was called again. We had made it, and we grabbed our bag and boarded the C130. SSG Williams waved a goodbye to Iraq as we took off. There were no windows we could see out, but you could almost feel the calm and sense of security you hadn't had as we crossed high over Baghdad. We landed in Kuwait an hour later. It was the beginning of a three-day hellish rush to get home.
In Kuwait SSG and I decided to stick together to make it to Atlanta. We got the same tent, went to breakfast, the MWR, and then dinner. On the second day we stood together in the miles-long line of Soldiers getting their leave forms stamped and flights scheduled from Atlanta to the nearest airport to their home. We stood in the hot blazing sun of Kuwait until the dead of night. Finally we had our green light to go, and were put into the holding area to wait for the contracted flight to Atlanta. It was gated off with armed guards. I wasn't sure why since we were going HOME, but I guess the Army has its reasons.
SSG and I had made various friends along the way, we had a 1LT, SFC, a few Specialists, but eventually it was just us in the middle of 100 other Soldiers that were put on different flights.
Within the holding area the excitement was driving me crazy. I tried to sleep but I would dream about Rustamiyah and wake up. I constantly would hear the alarm in my head. I was on edge. I thought I heard small arms fire but I held back my reaction so I wouldn't be embarrassed. Little did I know that many other Soldiers were thinking and doing the same thing, including the SSG. We all silently shared a fear and experience.
Finally we got the call. Everyone cheered so loud is was deafening. Quickly, leaders were assigned to ensure that all the Soldiers, Marines, and Airmen would be kept in order along the way to Atlanta. A SGM was assigned the Commander. SSG Williams was assigned to assist getting Soldiers into seats. I was still a PFC and just among the herd.
We were transported by bus under guard to the Kuwait airport and then we got on the plane. It was a normal plane you would fly to Disney World, except it looked like it was from the time when I went to Disney back in the 90s. It was an older plane, but at least we knew it would take us back home.
I began to fall asleep for the first time since March. I slept without waking up.
SSG woke me up. He let me know we were in Shannon Airport, Ireland for refuel and crew rest. We could smoke for the first time and many Soldiers got off the plane to the smoking area. We could see it was very early morning in Ireland since there were almost no civilians and most shops were closed. We were only allowed by the SGM to stay within the terminal and smoking area. It would be another two hours until we flew.
The SGM debated with an officer for a bit and decided to make the call that alcohol was prohibited until we got to Atlanta. He said it would be better if the civilians who saw us get off the plane in Atlanta didn't see anyone drunk. We were now representatives of the military. SSG and a few other Soldiers bullshitted for a while, and although we were all of different ranks, we were all friends for a brief period. It was time again to board the plane. The last nine-hour stretch. Aboard the plane again everyone was talking about who they were going to fuck first and how drunk they were going to get. The SGM said in a clear loud voice:
“MAKE SURE YOU SHOW YOUR CAC CARD WHEREEVER YOU GO AND GET FREE DRINKS!”
I fell asleep again until I woke up to a ROAR of cheers as we landed in the United States. It was amazing. We had made a week-long journey here and were finally in our home country. Before we got off the SGM had one last thing for us.
“Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors…DON”T BEAT YOUR WIFE OR YOUR KIDS, DONT KILL YOUR NIEGHBORS DOG and FOR GOD's SAKE WRAP YOUR TOOL IF YOUR GONNA FUCK!”
Laughter roared through the cabin. We got off the plane and stepped into Customs. Another roar erupted. I couldn't at first understand where it came from. The American people were cheering for us. I wish I could say it was in slow motion like a movie, but it wasn't. I had so many feelings: The excitement of going home, the fear of Iraq, and now the epic appreciation coming from strangers I’d never met. We got to the USO and they gave us our new flight schedules. Everyone was again split up very quickly to go to the West, East, South, and North. SSG and I said a semi-long goodbye and it was the last time I saw him. A group of seven of us, a Marine, some Soldiers, and an Army Officer were going to Philadelphia. Oddly enough, the SGM was heading to MA., so our terminals were in the same area. We then had to go through TSA security lines, and as we were walking through, the TSA officer demanded we take off our belts and boots. It was then when the SGM screamed through the line behind me.
“YOU FUCKING TSA, LET US FUCKING THROUGH! WE JUST GOT BACK FROM IRAQ…THESE SOLDIERS DONT NEED TO TAKE OFF THEIR DIRTY FUCKING SANDY BOOTS!”
The line stopped and a TSA supervisor tried to demand the SGM to shut up but all I heard the SGM say was, “32 YEARS IN THE FUCKING ARMY and 4 DEPLOYMENTS,” and we were ushered through very quickly. The SGM looked at the seven of us as he headed to his terminal and gave us a nod. We all nodded back. He smiled and walked off.
We immediately headed to a gate but the plane had taken off. We had an hour until the next flight so we went there to check in on standby and they said to check back in a half hour. The Captain with us said he would stay and wait and to get him something to eat. The marine and a couple other Soldiers and I went to go smoke and go to the shop to get snacks we had not eaten in a long time. I was especially excited since I hadn't had American food in America since 2007. While I was in a shop I encountered a nun I would never forget. She came up to me, grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you,” and gave me a hug. I teared up a bit. I said, “Thank you Sister,” the words that hadn't been uttered since Paul VI four years earlier.
We returned to the gate and the CPT didn't have a good look on his face. The Delta employee came up to us and said the flight was full and apologized over and over. We were down, but we understood we were on standby. The next flight was three hours from now, so the seven of us decided that we would stick together and try to find something to do. As we were taking a vote to go to the USO, the bar, or outside, the Delta guy came back up. These words I will forever remember and still tear up to this day.
“Hey guys, well, seven people decided to get off the flight so you guys could get home. Welcome aboard...let’s get you home.”
We got on the plane and I can say this time it was defiantly slow motion. Looking at the faces and awe the people had for us when we sat down. I couldn't think of anything else; the seven of us were silent. We all had the same anticipation now that we were finally in the home stretch. We had travelled through four countries and across the world and were finally heading to our family and friends. A week of travel and maybe less than a few days of actual sleep, our 18 day rest was about to begin.
We finally landed in Philadelphia. I could see Philly and the bridges to NJ. I couldn’t hold my emotions back. It was an absolutely indescribable experience. Over the loud speaker the pilot said the temperature, time, and forecast. He then came on and took us by surprise.
“Thank you for flying Delta, but we also would ask all of you on board to look around the cabin to see the American Heroes aboard today. They have travelled from Iraq and Afghanistan to come home to see their families. Please remain seated and let them off the plane first.”
Another eruption of applause. I quickly sucked it all in. We got off the plane and said goodbye to one another and promised to meet up again. We all had the same date to come back to Philly. We gave each other words of advice and phone numbers in case anyone had any sort of trouble. I stepped outside, smelled the Philadelphia air, lit up a cigarette, and I cried so hard for the first time since I stepped forth in the Army.